The explosion of column inches about Naomi Osaka this past week serves as a timely reminder of the pressures facing the modern sports professional. In a matter of just a few days, a young, talented tennis player has felt forced to exit a tournament for the sake of protecting her own mental wellbeing, under the weight of media and public scrutiny.
Every one of us has both mental health and physical health both of which can fluctuate throughout our lives. One in four people will experience a mental health problem in any given year, the most common being depression and anxiety. It should come as no surprise then that sports professionals will experience mental health problems too.
Sports professionals are presented with a unique set of pressures in their jobs: from scoring points and winning trophies, to facing media scrutiny and meeting high expectations of fans. On top of that, professionals who participate in solo sports, like tennis, face additional pressures that may impact on their mental health: the risk of feeling isolated, only having yourself to blame when things go wrong, relationships with fellow athletes coming with both camaraderie but also a competitive edge.
More than one in three said seeing celebrity mental health stories had prompted them to start a conversation with a friend or loved one about mental health
Mind’s own report on elite athletes’ mental health, Performance Matters, suggests that these pressures mean that many sports professionals struggle in silence. They are concerned about the impact on their careers of revealing a mental health problem. That they will be considered a weaker competitor for it, or that it can be exploited by a competitor to gain an edge when it really counts. This is hugely worrying, given that bottling-up stress and not getting support for your mental health at an early stage can lead to developing more serious problems, which may also be more difficult to treat.
While much of the scrutiny faced by sports professionals is about how they perform on the court, pitch, or track, it also extends to their lives outside of competing. We are seeing more and more sportspeople open up about their experiences of mental health problems and using their platform to raise awareness.
Mind has found that when high profile people, including sportspeople, speak publicly about their own mental health problems, it can help inspire others to do the same. Sharing personal experiences of poor mental health can be overwhelming, so it’s important that when people like Naomi Osaka do open up about their mental health, they are met with understanding and support.
Our research found that 25 per cent of people said hearing a celebrity talk openly about their own mental health had inspired them to seek help or get support for themselves. In turn, more than one in three of those asked said seeing celebrity mental health stories had prompted them to start a conversation with a friend or loved one about mental health, showing how the power of celebrity can be a real force for change in how we all think and act about mental health problems. This may also be one of the few silver linings to be found in a torrid week for mental health in sport.
But speaking out about mental health doesn’t always receive such a positive response. Naomi Osaka’s comments about the impact of press conferences on her mental wellbeing have been met by a disappointing reaction from some sections of the media. It goes to show that there is clearly still a stigma attached to mental health in sport and raises questions about player welfare in relation to their contractual media obligations.
We recognise that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to addressing this stigma. All sports have different needs, based on the structures through which they are organised. Governing bodies, players’ unions and coaches all have a role to play in supporting sports professionals to manage their mental wellbeing.
Journalists have a role to play too. Media reporting can have a huge influence on public attitudes towards mental health. When dealing with a topic already entrenched with stigma and misunderstanding, fair, accurate and sensitive journalism is essential.
Ultimately though, this is about seeing elite athletes as people, with both physical and mental health needs that should be accommodated for. Everyone within the sport sector should be working towards creating an environment where all sports professionals can fulfil their full potential. After all, it makes for a far better spectacle to see athletes perform at their best.
Paul Farmer is chief executive of mental health charity Mind.